The bamboo is a perennial grass with woody culms /stems arising from rhizomes – it has innumerable uses and a particular species may be more suited to one craft than another. Bamboo plays a significant and vital role in the life of the Nepalese and is an integral part of their life. For those of the Hindu faith it fulfils numerous ritual requirements from birth to death: rituals like the yangya performed at the sacred thread wearing ceremony and wedding ceremony cannot be accomplished without bamboo. Bamboo groves are found all over Nepal and a majority of rural households have the necessary indigenous knowledge and know-how on how to use the most suitable species of bamboo for specific purposes.
The bamboo craft like many others in Nepal is faced with a declining trend due to the production and import of plastic products that are replacing a number of traditional bamboo products.
Products crafted from bamboo range from bridges, roofs, floors, ceilings, and walls, to mats, trays, water-carriers, filters, sieves, and a wide variety of baskets. Bamboo is also crafted into combs, fishing nets, ladles, furniture, pens, and brushes,. Till today mountain folk living in Shanku Washabha and Bhojpur districts make water pots and household utensils from bamboo, thus maintaining an unbroken tradition of countless generations. The leaves are an important source of fodder and the young shoots of some species are commonly used as a vegetable. The entire culm can be used, or it can be split into sections, crushed into panels, or split and then woven.
Construction: A common use of bamboo is in the construction of thatched roofs for homes and bamboo poles and strips are used extensively for the construction of such roofs. Bamboo pipes are used as irrigation canals in the trans-Himalayan zones and other mountainous terrain.
Musical Instruments: Bamboo is used for crafting musical flutes like the murali and bansuri. Flute making in Nepal has been practised from time immemorial. The Nepalese flutes are of two types, one in which the flute is blown from a side hole while in the other, the slanting tip of the instrument is held by the lips and is blown.
Toys: Bamboo is also used in making toys and games for children. Simple bamboo pumps (pachakka) – consisting of a small bamboo piston fitted in a bamboo jacket – are used to squirting water colour with during the festival of colours (phagu), week-long festivities celebrated at the beginning of spring.
Grain Measures: One of the traditional uses of the bamboo was its use as a measure for grain. Nepal had its own system of measurement until a few decades ago and cereals and grains were measured with the bamboo manas and pathis. However since Nepal adopted the metric system of measurement these have become obsolete and are rarely seen.
For agricultural use the winnow (nanglo) is woven out of bamboo bark – it has a circular rim and is somewhat shallow. For sieving grain and flour, a perforated bamboo sieve is crafted from bamboo strips; it is made in different mesh sizes. Utilitarian baskets like the doko, dalo, dali, sholi, thunse, and kharpan, etc. are used for carrying different products and therefore have different shapes and sizes. However, they are basically conical in shape, with a wide opening and a narrow base. The dhoko is woven with a lattice, whereas the dalo, dali, sholi, and thunse have a compact weave, thereby allowing even fine grains to be carried or stored in them. The kharpan is woven in pairs in shallow circular fashion and is used for carrying goods – using a bamboo pole – on the shoulder. The tokari is another bamboo basket with a narrow opening and a wide base and is used as a container for items like potatoes.
Baskets: Nepalese hill porters often carry bamboo dhokos. Because of their perfect shape and lightness, combined with strength, the dhokos has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Most mountain villagers use these baskets daily for carrying food, water, fuel and, when necessary, the elderly or sick.
Storage: The Nepalese farmers use bamboo for the storage of grains. While small quantities of rice, wheat etc. are stored in earthenware jars, large quantities of grain are stored in a granary that is made out of bamboo. A large mat is plaited using bamboo strips – this is bent into a circular frame and sewn with jute thread. The circular bamboo sheet is fixed in the dry ground using a mixture of mud and cow-dung. This fabricated granary is given a coating of mixed red clay and cow-dung and allowed to dry. Rice, wheat, etc., are placed in this granary and the top portion is covered with a bamboo straw mat. The whole container is then sealed with a clay and cow-dung mixture to protect it from insects and vermin.
Transport: Bamboo is also used in Nepal to provide transport. A traditional stretcher that is carried on the shoulder can accommodate up to four people. During the wedding ceremony, the bride and the groom are separately carried in the ulinkath, which has a strong wooden base and frame and is usually rectangular. One side of this is wide while the other is narrow. A person sits in the ulinkath with their legs stretched toward the narrow side. The sides of the ulinkath are made of a latticed bamboo structure. Only a strong bark of bamboo is used for its construction. This traditional bamboo carriage is disappearing from the urban areas; in the hill regions, however, it continues to be used at weddings, sacred thread ceremonies (upanayam), and also in carrying the sick and disabled to hospital. The khamu (two baskets) attached to a central bamboo are used for carrying children and produce – here the baskets are tied with four twines to the bamboo and balanced by a stout bamboo stick that is carried on the back or shoulder of the porter. According to the Imperial Gazetteer of India (Provincial Series) published on Nepal in 1908: ‘… the Newars invariably carry theirs (loads) in baskets with a pole balanced on the shoulder.’
Bows & Arrows: Archery is a favourite pastime in the high Himalayas. Archery competitions are held every year in the northern part of Nepal. The bows and arrows are made out of the bamboo. The Nepalese bow and arrow has a powerful striking strength and is used not only during competitions but also for hunting.
Fans: The Nepalese bamboo fans are square or rectangle in shape and can be rotated along the axis of the handle. The fan is woven out of the inner bark of the bamboo. The edges of the fan are sealed with a piece of coloured cloth. The cloth is either sewn or glued onto the edges. The Nepalese fans are simple examples of braided bamboo sheets. Virtually no embellishment is added on to the fans.
In Nepal 20 species have been recognised; seven are still indeterminate. Two varieties of bamboo are commonly used in Nepal – taru and tama. Taru is a strong variety of bamboo, and is used for making different types of bamboo products; tama bamboo is a soft variety and its young shoots are used for making pickles – it is not used in making products where durability is required. The bans (typified by Dendrocalamus hamiltonii) is a large-statured species with thin flexible culm walls which are good for weaving but not strong or rigid enough for construction purposes.
The different species used for weaving may be found at altitudes between 300 and 2,600 m. The malingo includes Drepanostachyum spp. and Arundinaria spp., small-statured species found at the higher altitudes, which produce the highest-quality weaving material. Thev Arundinaria maling is the common eastern species and is occasionally found as low as 2,300 m but is widespread above 2,800 m: it is the most highly valued bamboo for basketwork. Because of the altitude at which the malingo grows few households would have their own stands and they therefore collect material from the forest.
PROCESS & TECHNIQUE
Whether used for utilitarian or aesthetic purposes the products crafted of bamboo are a combination of skill, deftness, and beauty. The plain weave, and the twill and diamond patterns occur in infinite variety in the mats and baskets in Nepal. Further appeal and an additional design element is added by treating the bamboo with heat and smoke and thereby introducing a tonal effect.
While processing the bamboo for use it is cut, dried in the sun, and seasoned for a few years. The naturally crooked shape of the bamboo is straightened by heating it over fire and by applying pressure in the direction in which it needs to be shaped. The seasoned bamboo is cut into strips and the outer bark is peeled off. The bark is smoothened on the inner side and cut into the required width. These strips are then used in weaving baskets.
Bamboo is woven, plaited, and worked on all over Nepal though ethnic groups such as the danuwars living in the mountainous region are expert in making baskets. However Commercial production of such articles has developed in the Kathmandu Valley and some areas of the terai.